Knuckle City filming in East London

South Africans may love their boxing and the sport has plenty of drama, but it has not been the subject of local film. A brand new motion picture about boxing is being shot in East London this month, by award-winning Mdantsane-born filmmaker Jahmil Qubeka, and produced by producer and editor Layla Swart.

Filmed by the 100% black-owned film company Yellowbone Entertainment, in partnership with MNET’s Mzansi Magic, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Eastern Cape Economic Development Corporation, the film is shot in parts of East London and Mdantsane.

Boasting 12 world champions, Mdantsane is known as South Africa’s boxing Mecca, and the fictional film focuses on the culture of boxing in the township. The plot follows Dudu Nyakama played by Bongile Mantsai of Inxeba and Scandal fame. Nyakama is a struggling boxer from Mdantsane and hopes that boxing will keep him out of poverty. Casting Mantsai – cast in the conjtroversial Inxeba that angered many in the Xhosa community – was a leap of faith for the producers.

“Initially we were nervous of bringing him [Bongile Mantsai] into the heart of Xhosa land and we had prepared the community for that. It seems that this has been almost redemptive for him and the community to see him play a hero. They respect his work and no one has been horrible to him and he has not received any threats,” said Swart.

Swart said their aim was to bring more awareness to boxing, so they partnered with world boxing champion Zolani Tete to bring authenticity to the movie 

Swart said shooting in East London had its difficulties because there was no culture of film making in the area.

“We are passionate about developing the industry here. It has been a struggle, but this is the first film that the ECDC has endorsed and financed in their attempt to also grow the film factory here,” she said.

The film has already secured an international release, and will premier at a tier 1 international film festival and in cinemas in at least 27 countries around the world.

Jobs were created in the making of this film, for about 100 crew members which includes local trainees and 14 local cast members.

“Eastern Cape is very rich with talent, I think performance is in their DNA. That has not been a struggle at all and we really excited to have that talent in the film,” said Swart.

“We are looking at the world of crime in Mdantsane versus the world of boxing. We are looking at what the fight for survival is about on a deeper level.”

Knuckle City is set to be the first South African boxing film, following the footsteps of Rocky, Raging Bull and Creed.

Veteran actress and Golden Horn Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Nomhle Nkonyeni (76) says even though she had been on many television productions including Gaz’lam, Generations, Scandal! and Igazi, being cast still gives her joy. Many people may have heard her narrating SABC1’s Ngempela.

“I still get excited because it means bread on my table. I feel great, even though I am not a boxing fan,” she said. She said she enjoys playing her character, Ma Bokwana, who is totally different from her. 

“She is money hungry. All she cares about is herself, not the community. The role is really wonderful, I am grateful,” she says.

“What I love about the film is that at least we are talking about the Eastern Cape history, so when they do films about historical events I get excited.”

Mantsai says shooting in the heart of Eastern Cape where many people were angered by Inxeba, was not easy for him. His father also passed away a week ago.

“The only fear I had was the fear of my life, not that of telling the story. Part of telling the story is that some people will be unhappy. I believe in doing work that impacts people, it doesn’t matter what kind of people it impacts. We do this kind of work to discomfort the comfort,” he said.

Mantsai added that after being in theatre for 15 years, Inxeba still gave him a big break, securing him many television parts.

Mantsai said he has always wanted to tell a story like the one he tells in Knuckle City.

“I went for the first time to watch a boxing match in Mthatha and I saw the hope that youngsters have in the boxing life. I see the character that I play every day, seeing the passion and love and the fact that they think boxing is the only way out of Mdantsane saddens me,” he said.

“Dudu is a 37-year-old boxer and he has nothing. The sad part about this character is that he has anger and family issues. He is living the legacy of his father who was very abusive.”

The cast also includes Comedian Siv Ngesi, Faniswa Yisa (Gladys Sondlo in JAB), Owen Sejake (Tiger Sibiya on Zone 14), Patrick Ndlovu (Ntate Moloi, on Zone 14), and Zolisa Xaluva (Diamond on The Queen).

The film will be released nationwide on cinemas in 2019 and will be available across all MNet platforms.